This is more or less the list of pieces, and commentary, that I furnished Ciaran with when we began working on the concerto in earnest. One of the central essences of the Hope Violin Concerto project is that it is a collaboration: rather than Ciaran going off and writing the piece on his own and giving it to me when it’s finished, he is analysing my favourite concertos while being aware of what I love about them in particular, and will bear those things in mind when he writes – while, naturally, creating a completely new and original work of art that is in no way derivative! It’s a piece of cake for him – I am very lucky to be doing this with Ciaran, he seems to find the whole process utterly inspiring; I know it wouldn’t be every composer’s cup of tea!
1 – Ludwig van Beethoven, Violin Concerto in D, Op. 61 Duh – number one is easy, there is no contest: the Beethoven towers above everything else in the world I’ve ever heard, its architectural balance of harmonies and simplicity conferring feelings of peace on most listeners. I imagine if you played it to plants, they would thrive abnormally well. After spending, at a modest estimate, at least 10,000 hours on this piece alone, I am still discovering new things about it, and as delighted to have any opportunity to play it – even if it’s just for myself, during a practice session – as I ever have been. It is the first concerto I ever performed in full with orchestra, at the ripe old age of fourteen, on a foggy rainy December night somewhere in Leicestershire. So now I’ve been playing it for more than half my life. I could go on and actually try to describe it, but that’s worth a post on its own, at least.
2 – Alban Berg “To the Memory of an Angel” Number two is also easy for me to decide on. Berg’s is the violin concerto I’ve been obsessed by the most, after Beethoven. It is full of mysteries and references, most of which I’m sure I am too ignorant to understand, but what I do understand of it blows me away – and I don’t feel that you need to “get” any of that clever stuff, or understand the twelve-tone system, to enjoy the piece. I know that when I first heard it I had no idea what a twelve-tone row was, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I’d ever heard – to me, that’s an example of a composer using a “method” of composition in the best possible way – purely as an instrument for beauty, not to prove any kind of point, not to appear clever, not to impress other composers. The balance of purity, calmness, drama, and excitement, the narrative, the melodies – all drawn with clear beautiful lines, or precisely executed cacophonies – all are, to my mind, as perfect as a human creation can be (next to the Beethoven). Having studied it for many years, it remains one of my strongest artistic desires to perform this piece – I refuse to die before this has taken place. I love Szeryng’s recording the best.
Prokofiev and Shostakovich’s first violin concertos are next, and I love them both so much I have them in joint third place. So often these two composers are mentioned in the same breath, I suppose due to a certain amount of chronological overlap and their Soviet origins; though they could not be more different from each other, to my ear, I love them equally and respect their intense contrasts. Funnily enough, it was a long time before I “discovered” Shostakovich No. 1 for myself, even though it was on the same CD as the Prokofiev – I chain-listened to the Prokofiev over and over again, and was always so blown away I never even got around to listening to the Shostakovich for a couple of years!
3 – Dmitri Shostakovich, Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 77 (Op. 99) Shostakovich is an epic story, evocative of so many characters, symbols and landscapes, so full of beauty, sadness, pain, pathos, poetry, suspense, seduction, excitement… it has everything you could possibly want in a violin concerto. The violin draws you in and whispers to you, while the orchestra paints a picture of the atmosphere; it sings to you while the orchestra supports, it becomes a rider on the orchestra’s galloping horse, it defies you to stop paying attention for even a second while it spins out the tension from the first note to the last.
3 – Sergei Prokofiev, Violin Concerto No. 1 in D, Op. 19 The beauty of the Prokofiev concerto is far more subtle, and more gently drawn, the orchestration lighter. If Shostakovich is an epic Hollywood production from the 50s with plenty of gold leaf and processions of camels and epic sunsets on steppe landscapes, then Prokofiev is a delicately executed watercolour. Maybe a Turner, one where when you look closely enough, you find astonishingly intricate detail behind the swirling, distractingly impressionistic clouds. The solo violin’s opening melody, over a simple major third tremolo in the violins, grows like the first shoot of a plant – delicate, gently exploring to find its place in the world, reinforcing itself, until it is strong enough to soar. I first heard this concerto during a particularly trying phase of my life as a teenager, when I had to face something new and challenging quite alone, with no support, and fighting some adversity. It was genuinely the only thing in my life at the time that gave me hope to stick to my guns and carry on – after I heard it, I realised that my troubles were a drop in the ocean of my life, and that if I could only grit my teeth and survive my challenge and live to at least read through the solo part of Prokofiev, I would be OK.
4 – Johannes Brahms, Violin Concerto in D, Op. 77 After that, Brahms, good old romantic Brahms. Ouf, this man knew how to write for the violin, and he knew how to squeeze something out of an orchestra, how to restrain both of them and let them free at the right moment to make the greatest possible impact. In this concerto, the orchestra and the violin stand as equals – they talk to one another, interrupt each other, play, fight and support each other. It’s quite an astonishing thing considering it’s a case of dozens versus one! As a narrative, the whole thing is to my ears less complete than my above favourites. The first movement stands on its own as an incredible, epic story, the 2nd movement is deliciously beautiful, with the best tune given to the oboe (which the violinist Sarasate famously complained about, refusing ever to play the concerto), and the third is a jolly romp. What does sustain throughout all three movements is the power balance between violin and orchestra, which I think is quite unique. What is also notable is that there is really not a single unnecessary note, the orchestration and melody have been pared down to sleek aerodynamic perfection. Like Beethoven, it’s all sinew and muscle, no unnecessary bulk. I absolutely love it when beauty and function come together harmoniously in anything.